Advancing a Free Society

Debate Thoughts

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sometimes the answers to complex problems begin by asking simple questions.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the guiding principle for Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College, the focus of which was the sputtering American economy.

Moderator Charlie Rose and his two journalist sidekicks could have started with the basics: giving each candidate a minute to pinpoint what’s wrong with the economy; what to say to and do for the chronically unemployed; to outline an acceptable formula of joblessness, inflation, domestic growth and balance of trade?

Instead, the Bloomberg/Washington Post broadcast took us deep into the former swamp that is Washington – into a morass of “super committees”, Bernankes, Geithners, TARPS and Dodd-Franks.

This isn’t to say that the debate wasn’t without its moments. Rose adeptly moved along the discussion. For once, candidates were allowed to ask questions to each other.

And there was a terrific moment of levity, when Herman Cain channeled Strother Martin (“what we have here is a failure to communicate”) with this deadpan reply to a reporter’s question: “The problem with that analysis is that it is incorrect.”

(That was but one of two bad moments for Bloomberg’s Julianna Goldman, who also found herself in a silly tat-for-tat with Mitt Romney, trying to explain why her question about something that didn’t exist was not, in fact, a hypothetical question. Good thing for her the dust-up was this the amiable Romney, and not the media-loathing Newt Gingrich).

So what did we learn about the candidate that we didn’t 24 hours ago?

  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry was, for the most part, an economic one-note: energy independence. If you were expecting a more detailed policy, you’ll have to wait until Friday.
  • Romney focused primarily on trade and a need to get physical with China (populist jingo his conservative economic advisors probably didn’t enjoy hearing and won’t like defending).
  • Cain stuck to his flat-tax plan. For the “Herminator”. It’s “9-9-9”, 24-7 (look for the media to look into the man Cain out’ed as his lead economic brain, Rich Lowrie).

Still, there were some gaps in the evening’s proceedings – most notably, how little time both the candidates and questioners devoted to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement (an indirect question about income disparity and wealthy have’s and have-not’s didn’t pop up until 100 minutes into the debate).

If indeed “Occupy” is moving from a protest to policy phase, is there any common ground between the disgruntled left and the GOP’s pro-capitalist candidates? Or, is the 2012 election destined for a showdown between President Obama and his Republican challenger as to who can better bottle the two extremes’ anger?

A second gap: precious little talk about government over-regulation, which as any presidential observer knows has long been the bane of New Hampshirites’ existence (first litmus test for any candidate entering the Granite State: where do you stand on motorcycle-helmet laws?).

Bashing the EPA is a given in most any Republican gathering, but what says this field about greenhouse game emissions and environmental oversight?

As luck would have it, I had the pleasure of watching the economic debate with a roomful of Stanford MBA candidates. They laughed when Cain said that Alan Greenspan was a good model for a Federal Reserve chairman (it didn’t take long for Ron Paul to jump on that one).

In fact, they laughed every time Cain went back “9-9-9”. It wasn’t the laughter of ridicule, just a group of smart men and women who were amused – “amused” as in entertained, which is not the same as being intrigued or wanting to be further and better informed.

And that’s what’s hard to figure about Cain at this point. In a debate that Romney could have dominated and Perry once again did not shine, Cain and his tax plan were the focal point – the filter through which the conservation kept flowing.

That made it a good night for Cain; it stabilizes his standing as an upper-tier candidate. But as my very limited biz-school sampling suggests, while Cain and his strong broadcasting skills easily capture viewers’ attention, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to capture their support.

Parting thoughts:

A good night for: Bloomberg News, that channel that’s hidden on most folks’ cable systems. Giving candidates a chance to quiz each other came as welcome relief.

A bad night for: Perry, whose awkward facial expressions early on suggested a man counting down the minutes to the next flight back to Austin. The Texas governor faces another debate next Tuesday, the urgency of which cannot be understated.

A good night for: Newt Gingrich, whose clever lines reminded one of why he’s a good speaker (with a lower-case “s”), public orator and television pundit.

A bad night for: Viewers’ patience. Man was not meant to endure four-segment, two-hour debates.

(photo credit: susansimon)